Impresario and Philanthropist
John Percy Mitchelhill was born in Holborn, London, in 1879, to John and Louisa Sarah (nee Wilson). Although by this time the Mitchelhills had been Londoners for several generations, they had actually originated in Kirkcudbright in Scotland. During the first quarter of the 19th century, some members of the family, including my own great x3 grandmother, had come to London where they had a tailoring business in the West End.
By the time John Percy was born, his branch of the Mitchelhills had left tailoring and his father was variously described as a ‘Commercial Clerk’ or an ‘Accountant’.
John Percy left school at the age of 13 and was apprenticed to his mother’s brother, Philip Wilson, who was a wheelwright. Determined to better himself, he would also attend church services in order to practice shorthand by taking down the sermons. This paid off, as he was later to work as a shorthand typist for various employers, including the Morning Post newspaper, a firm of estate agents and a firm of solicitors. It was during this period of his career that he was recorded on the 1901 census.
The Wilsons were a talented family who were stage struck, something which rubbed off on J.P., as he came to be known. Another Wilson uncle, Charlie, was a professional choreographer who worked at London’s famous Alhambra Theatre and Music Hall in Leicester Square.
Whilst learning to become a wheelwright by day with one uncle, young J.P. would spend his evenings backstage at the theatre, with the other. Charles Wilson was said to have worked in America with Oscar Hammerstein I, and even Philip the wheelwright was a talented musician and composer.
The Wilson/Mitchelhill clan used to delight in giving parties at which they would stage plays and musical entertainments, all written, produced and performed by the family. The leading lady and star of these productions was J.P.’s youngest sister, Beatrice Louisa, known as Daisy, who herself became a professional dancer and actress at the Alhambra.
According to its entry in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the Alhambra was “noted for its alluring corps de ballet”, of which, presumably, Daisy was a member. This is the family background which was to sow the seeds of J.P.’s love of the theatre and eventually determine the course of his adult life.
In 1903 J.P. took a job with a firm of theatrical costumiers, working as personal assistant to the owner, Charles Alias. By 1909, Charles Alias wanted to sell his company and 30 year old John Percy Mitchelhill was eager to buy it. With this object in mind, he approached his bank to ask for a loan. Instead of advancing him the money, the bank introduced him to a City financier, Colonel Ernest Halford. Halford and Mitchelhill formed a partnership which bought Alias’ theatrical costumiers, and Mitchelhill continued to run it.
In 1911 a business acquaintance of Colonel Halford contacted him to say that he had bought a theatre and needed someone to run it for him. That theatre was Collins’ Music Hall in Islington, London, and the person Halford suggested should run it was John Percy Mitchelhill.
J.P. ran Collins’ from 1911, all through World War One, and was responsible for booking acts as well as the financial affairs of the theatre. A poster from 1915 for a musical revue entitled ‘Yes, I Think So’ has, in very small print, a name that was later to become famous – Gracie Fields. This was her first appearance on the London stage and it was J.P. Mitchelhill who was responsible for hiring her.
During the war Mitchelhill’s partner, Colonel Halford, had been in the Royal Flying Corps. When he returned it was decided to sell Collins’ and Mitchelhill instead went to work full-time in the Colonel’s office.
However, his first love was still the theatre, and in 1930 he acquired the Duchess Theatre in London’s Strand. This was a difficult time in the West End as the economic depression was taking hold, coupled with the growing popularity of the cinema. Many theatres were closed and the Duchess was no exception at the time Mitchelhill bought it, although he was determined to revive its fortunes.
It was only a small theatre, but throughout the 1930s its influence on London’s theatreland grew as J.P. gave opportunities to both new and established playwrights. J.B. Priestley was one, and many of his better known plays were premiered at the Duchess. He was to become a close friend of J.P.’s.
Emlyn Williams was given his first chance of a London production by Mitchelhill and the Duchess staged T.S. Eliot’s play ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ in 1936, giving Eliot his first West End success.
During his time running the Duchess Theatre, J.P. Mitchelhill came to be known as an honest, fair and kind man by everyone associated with the profession. He was later to become involved with running other West End theatres, but he was also increasingly involved in charitable work both within the world of the theatre and in other fields too, most notably, nursing and hospitals.
In 1932 Mitchelhill’s old friend and business partner, Colonel Ernest Halford, died. He left his considerable fortune in a charitable trust called the Halford Trust, which was to be administered by Mitchelhill and another executor. By the time of Mitchelhill’s own death in 1966 he had greatly increased the residue of the Halford estate.
In 1938 he had the idea of establishing a home for blind people and, through the Halford Trust, purchased Montpelier House standing in grounds of over an acre on the edge of Kentish Town, where he had grown up. It eventually became clear that there was no real demand for such a home so J.P. turned the project into a welfare centre and emergency accommodation for local people who were bombed out of their homes during World War Two, with the gardens being turned into allotments where people could ‘Dig for Victory’.
Besides using Halford Trust money to fund the project, Mitchelhill contributed large sums of his own money too. Scholarships were established at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for aspiring but poor actors, and money was given to the Royal College of Nursing to set up courses to enable nurses to train as sister tutors.
A library was also donated to the RCN and accommodation was provided at Montpelier House for women taking the sister tutor courses. Money was also available for hospitals to buy much needed equipment that otherwise couldn’t be afforded.
In addition, many smaller charities also benefited from Halford and Mitchelhill’s philanthropy. When Florence Nightingale’s family home in Derbyshire, Lea Hurst, was put on the market, Mitchelhill bought it, again through the Halford Trust, and then turned it into a home for elderly retired nurses.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, John Percy Mitchelhill continued with his work in running various London theatres, whilst administering the Halford Trust. Sometimes the two sides of his life were combined when the proceeds from some of his productions were given to charity; on one occasion the entire receipts from the Duchess Theatre’s Christmas production were donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.
During the 1950s, J.P. began to suffer attacks of dizziness and was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease. He died on 6th August 1966 at Montpelier House, close to where he had grown up in Kentish Town, 87 years earlier.
John Percy Mitchelhill is a very distant relative of mine; our common ancestors are Robert (1759-1845) and Janet (1755-1839) Mitchelhill of Kirkcudbright. This couple were J.P.’s great x2 grandparents and they are my great x4 grandparents, making us third cousins twice removed.
It was quite by accident that I discovered his theatrical connections. I was browsing through The Times online archives and kept coming across advertisements for West End theatre productions headed “J.P. Mitchelhill presents….”. As I only had him recorded as a clerk on the 1901 census, it came as a complete surprise to find out that he had had a quite different career later in life.
A shy man, he tended to keep a low public profile, preferring his charitable work to be conducted without fanfare or fuss. As a theatre owner and administrator, he was not as well known as the people who owed some of their fame and fortune to his help. For this reason, he is not remembered as perhaps he deserves to be, although he counted some of the most prominent names in the London theatre amongst his friends and admirers, and there must have been many, many people who had reason to be grateful for his generosity and philanthropy.
Ann from Sussex
© Ann from Sussex 2008
J.P. The Man Called Mitch, a memoir by Peter Cotes. Published 1977 by Elek Books Limited.
Obituary of J. P. Mitchelhill from The Times 10th August 1966